Four men sat around a clubhouse office in Los Angeles, deep in thought. American rock band The Doors were in need of an album cover. Photographer and musician Henry Diltz and his partner, graphic artist Gary Burden, were tasked with bringing the group’s vision to life. However, if the band’s unnamed album was any indication, The Doors were stumped as to what that concept would even be.
So the group sat in silence.
“There was a long pause and then The Doors’ pianist Ray Manzarek just spoke up as if scripted by the universe,” said Diltz in a phone interview. “He said, ‘You know my wife Dorothy and I were just driving downtown the other day and we saw this old hotel called Morrison Hotel,’ and he gestured with his hands, an arc of a rainbow where the title would be.”
“And we said, ‘Wow, that sounds great.’”
Fifty years later, “Morrison Hotel” is still recognized as an iconic contribution to rock and roll for both its music and cover art. On Feb. 8, Diltz, guitarist Robby Krieger of The Doors and several special guests honored the album’s 50th anniversary at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, home to one of Diltz’s photo galleries. A line of hopeful partygoers trailed outside the entrance, the heavy base of the poolside performances thrummed throughout the hotel lobby and Diltz’s prized collection of photographs—some never-before-seen—were displayed for all to see.
From being the official photographer for Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival to smoking “God’s herb,” as he called it, with Paul McCartney, Diltz has documented moments from some of music’s biggest stars and events since the 1960s. His collection of photographic essays captured the unique essence of rock and roll.
“There was nothing else like it,” said vintage dealer and attendee Connie Parente. “It didn’t imitate anything. I went from being a total weirdo misfit little kid to like a Beatle maniac overnight, and then I blossomed to this creative entity. It brought everything out of me. That’s what the whole scene did. It had this level of creativity and inspiration and excitement. I think that’s why bands from the 60s and 70s have a soft spot in so many people’s hearts.”
Alongside The Doors, special guests and performances include Miley Cyrus, Michael Bolton, Nicole Atkins, Dennis Quaid, the Struts, Andrew Watt and the Tangiers Blues Bland.
“The Doors have been a part of our lives since we were teenagers,” said photographer Jorge Carrillo, who attended the event with stylist and photography assistant Marina Bellezzo. “The Morrison Hotel Gallery had a big event at the original location and we went there as well. It’s a pretty big deal. Everyone here is an artist or a music fan and into rock and roll.”
Bellezzo’s fashion is usually inspired by the bands she loves. She produces her fashion through photography, which is what influenced Carrillo to become a photographer. Bellezzo and Carrillo were able to meet and talk with Diltz, who admired Bellezzo’s necklace and even took a picture of it.
“The whole 50th anniversary is just crazy,” said Bellezzo. “I wish I would have been there when it was all happening, so it’s just nice to be able to experience what is still here, but I definitely think that no modern music holds a candle to anything that was back then. I definitely have an old soul. I love everything, from the fashion to the music.”
Diltz’s photography career began when he purchased a second-hand camera while on the road with his music group, American folk revival band Modern Folk Quartet. After their road trip, he decided to have a slideshow with all of his friends.
“That first slide hit the wall, eight feet long, this shimmering color in the dark room with the little music playing. And it was just magic,” said Diltz. “That was my first epiphany. It put us right back there.”
When the band went on a 10-year hiatus after recording a Phil Spectre single, the rest of his group went on to become record producers.
“My turn to the right was to pick up a camera and just continue hanging out with my friends,” said Diltz, “but this time while I was hanging out I was quietly pursuing my hobby, which was to save little moments. It became a way of looking at the world.”
He had no formal training prior to picking up the hobby, but this worked to his advantage by simplifying the art process. Throughout his career, he has never developed a roll of film. Rather, he prefers to focus on the visual aspect of photography.
He opened his first gallery, initially named The Photography of Henry Diltz, with former record company marketing executive Peter Blachley and music retail industry professional Richard Horowitz in Soho, New York City. It only became Morrison Hotel Gallery when Diltz and Blachley noticed that the picture of “Morrison Hotel” in their front window was more attention-grabbing than the store’s actual name.
Since then, the gallery has been expanded to Maui and Los Angeles.
Part of why Diltz loves photography is because it allows him to interact with others.
He had always been interested in other people, especially in the differences and similarities that everyone possesses. This curiosity translated into his photography.
“Being a photographer is like having a passport into other people’s lives,” said Diltz.
Linda McCartney once asked him to photograph her and Paul for a songbook, and the photograph that he took that day became a Life magazine cover—another happy accident, as Diltz described.
Throughout his career, he never stopped to think about the impact and legacy his photographs would leave behind, nor did he worry about what his next big project would be. He lived worry-free as a hippy in Laurel Canyon, “a photographer in his head and a musician in his heart.”
Much of his work and optimistic outlook is influenced by marijuana and psychedelics, which gave him a new appreciation of life.
“The Dalai Lama says, ‘The purpose of life is happiness,’” said Diltz. “Well, I’m sure he doesn’t condone smoking pot, but it is a shortcut. It’s great to have ideas and things you want to accomplish, but you’ve got to learn to relax too. We’re down here for this brief journey to learn certain truths and learn appreciation. Love, friendship, sharing—all that is kind of appreciation. Appreciate being alive.”
In fact, smoking is what helped Diltz capture intimate, personal moments with nearly every star that he photographed. He once remarked to a customer in his Soho gallery that out of all the musicians who were displayed on his walls, the only two who he hadn’t smoked with were Donny Osmond and Michael Jackson.
“When you spend dreary hours in a van driving across the country to a place 800 miles away, it can be deadly boring,” said Diltz. “But if you have a little smoke, inhale a little of that wonderful herb, things open up. You feel good, maybe you write a song while you’re driving alone. Everybody’s singing. For me, it was to pick up a camera, look into it and watch the world and frame it with pictures, little pieces of art. They were little framed masterpieces.”
Diltz has photographed around 125 rock and roll legends and his works can be viewed and purchased at any of his three gallery locations. His Los Angeles gallery is in the lobby of the Sunset Marquis Hotel. More information can be found at Morrisonhotelgallery.com.